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Hamas coup in Gaza

Fundamental shift in Palestinian politics

Pages 1-2 | Published online: 18 Jul 2007


Political realities in Palestine have changed fundamentally following the Hamas takeover in Gaza. Hamas is now too strong and embedded, Fatah too fragmented and enfeebled, and the emergency government too lacking in control of the Israeli-occupied West Bank for the new situation to be reversed in the foreseeable future. The Gaza coup has presented the international community with difficult options, with the risk that in the absence of any prospect of resolution of the Israel–Palestine issue, jihadist militancy could be given further room to grow.

In four days in mid-June 2007 the ‘Executive Force’ of the Islamist Resistance Movement (Hamas) seized control of the entire Gaza Strip, sweeping away key security services and the allied clan militia loyal to its mainstream nationalist rival Fatah. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, echoed by Western governments and the government of Israel, did not delay in branding it a well-planned military coup. Abbas responded by dissolving the national unity government – convened as recently as March and led by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas – and forming an emergency government led by former Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah, and promising to hold parliamentary elections as soon as circumstances permitted.

The takeover brought US and European condemnation of Hamas, broad foreign recognition of the emergency government, and a unanimous declaration of international support for Abbas. But there was no doubt that political realities in Palestine had changed fundamentally. The emergence of the PA president's office as a de facto parallel government following the imposition of international financial sanctions on the Hamas-led cabinet in March 2006 has now been formalised. There are now rival governments in Gaza and Ramallah, each claiming constitutional legitimacy. The commonly accepted ‘rules of the game’ for the conduct of Palestinian national politics have been lost, making it almost impossible to hold new elections or to restore social peace. With Hamas too strong and embedded, Fatah too fragmented and enfeebled, and the emergency government lacking in meaningful control in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the situation on the ground is unlikely to be reversed in the foreseeable future.

Fatah's crucial weakness

The debacle in Gaza is a direct result of the policies advocated by Fatah's ‘old guard’ – comprising its Central Committee, presidential advisers inherited from the Yassir Arafat era, and Mohammad Dahlan, the ambitious former head of the PA's preventive security apparatus in Gaza, who is now Abbas's national security adviser. They were also advocated by the US officials in charge of Palestine policy: the neo-conservative Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams, and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch. Their alliance delivered US support for the group that bore greatest responsibility for the nepotism and corruption that plagued the PA under Arafat and for impeding economic, administrative and security-sector reform following his death. These factors contributed to a sharp rise in lawlessness and crime, as well as a steep decline in public service delivery in 2004–05, and led directly to Hamas's January 2006 electoral victory. This group overrode the majority of Fatah's ‘young guard’ and grassroots leaders who advocated accepting Hamas's initial invitation in February 2006 to join a national unity government, which the US strongly opposed, and prevented the handover of responsibility for the PA Security Forces (PSF) to the new minister of the interior.

While there was truth in Fatah's charge that the Hamas offensive in Gaza was tantamount to a coup, Hamas's counter-claim that it was defending a democratically elected government against a campaign to remove it from power was also not unfounded. Over the previous year, Fatah gunmen had repeatedly assaulted parliamentary premises and Hamas-run ministries. Fatah commanders of the PSF openly refused to take orders from the government, while the Fatah-dominated civil service conducted a debilitating strike from September 2006 to January 2007. The PA's preventive security apparatus in Gaza conducted a small-scale campaign of assassinations and abductions against Hamas, to which it responded in kind; by early June it had effectively decapitated the preventive security and smaller, Fatah-dominated general intelligence frameworks.

The June escalation was triggered by Hamas's conviction that the PA's Presidential Guard, which US Security Coordinator Lieutenant General Keith Dayton had helped build up to 3,500 men since August 2006, was being positioned to take control of Gaza. The timing was significant. Abbas, Haniyeh and Hamas Politburo chief Khaled Meshaal, normally based in Damascus, had signed a Saudi-brokered power-sharing deal on 9 February 2007, and formed a national unity government in mid-March. In response, the build-up of the Presidential Guard was accelerated. The US had arranged the transfer of 2,000 rifles and ammunition from Egypt in late December 2006, and in late April the Israeli government transferred another 375; the US committed $59 million for training and non-lethal equipment, and covertly persuaded Arab allies to fund the purchase of further weapons. Jordan and Egypt hosted at least two battalions for training, one of which was deployed into Gaza as clashes resumed in mid-May. With half its parliamentary bloc and its cabinet ministers in the West Bank in Israeli custody since the abduction of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit by Palestinian militants on 28 June 2006, Hamas concluded that its remaining government base in Gaza was in danger and launched what in effect was a preemptive coup.

US miscalculations

The US had seriously miscalculated. It relied excessively on Dahlan, who defiantly challenged Hamas before a rally of 100,000 supporters in May, but otherwise remained abroad for the two months up to, and including, the Hamas takeover. It overestimated the ideological and organisational coherence of Fatah, which crumbled in the face of the Hamas offensive. This was partly because Fatah members were deeply divided over policy towards Hamas, with a majority opposed to confrontation and uneasy about a close US embrace. By focusing its onslaught on the preventive security and general intelligence networks, Hamas skilfully kept most Fatah members out of the fray.

Fatah's circumstances are unlikely to improve while it undergoes an internal realignment as Dahlan and his closest lieutenants, now taking refuge in Ramallah, are called to account for the events in Gaza. Abbas is under fire for not acting more decisively and sooner to meet the Hamas threat. In the longer term, internal tensions will worsen as Dahlan's longtime rival Jibril Rajoub, former head of preventive security in the West Bank, and Marwan Barghouti, the popular ‘young guard’ leader now serving five life sentences in Israel, seek influence within the new leadership ‘field committee’ established by Abbas in March, which Dahlan packed with his supporters. The probable outcome is further polarisation and fragmentation, which will impede the emergency government's ability to enforce or maintain law and order, and will erode its credibility. Meanwhile, Fatah's old guard has banned contacts between Fatah and Hamas, and is lobbying Western governments for a punitive lockdown of Gaza, blocking exports and all imports other than humanitarian relief. Given that the PA employs 44% of Gaza's population, where unemployment and poverty levels are already well over 40% and 60% respectively, and that 1.1m of its population of 1.4m currently depend on UN food aid, the potential for an even more severe humanitarian crisis is high.

Israel as a partner for peace?

The resumption of international aid flows announced by the US to bolster Abbas will do little to empower the emergency government so long as it lacks meaningful control over the principal instruments of government: security, movement and access, land and water use, population registries, and currency, customs and communications. The critical obstacle remains the Israeli system of internal and border closures, which has fragmented the West Bank into ten main enclaves and crippled trade and administration. This system was supposed to be radically eased following Israel's disengagement from Gaza in September 2005 and the signing two months later of the Agreement on Movement and Access, mediated by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. However, Israel has failed to implement any of its elements, and has not accepted the ‘acceleration benchmarks’ proposed by Dayton in May 2007 to reactivate the agreement.

It is, therefore, unsurprising that Abbas has presented his international interlocutors and Tel Aviv with four demands: the release of $700m in customs and VAT revenues collected by the Israeli government on behalf of the PA but withheld by it since Hamas came to power; the start of meaningful diplomatic talks; freedom for the PSF to recruit and move; and the removal of the Israeli system of internal closures in accordance with the Agreement on Movement and Access and Dayton's benchmarks. Israeli President-Elect Shimon Peres has said that the government will do ‘everything possible’ to assist Abbas, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has affirmed that ‘a government that is not a Hamas government is a partner for peace’. But despite agreeing in principle to release $562m in PA revenues in instalments, Tel Aviv has refused to remove roadblocks or other restrictions on movement, and is unlikely to meet the other demands. Nor is Washington likely to press it to do so.

Indeed, Israel is even less likely under present conditions to relax its control over the West Bank, where its overriding security control will contain the spread of the Hamas–Fatah confrontation from Gaza. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who recently replaced Amir Peretz as leader of the Labour Party and defence minister, is moreover reportedly considering sending a 20,000-man force into Gaza to eliminate Hamas. If this were to occur, it would be highly improbable that Abbas and Fatah could reimpose any form of stable government, especially in light of past failures and the parlous state of PA institutions. Meanwhile, Israel would find itself in renewed occupation of a society torn even more bitterly than before by factional rivalry, clan-based blood feuds and criminal networks. Israel was itself alarmed by the damage to the fabric of Palestinian governance as early as 2004, and the UN and World Bank have been warning repeatedly since late 2005 that the local economy is in freefall, leading to humanitarian crisis, rising insecurity and irreversible institutional dissolution.

A dilemma for the international community

Nobody so far has a credible plan for the ‘post-coup’ phase. The new status quo cannot last given the PA's institutional decay, Fatah's disarray and the Palestinians’ cumulative socioeconomic decline. Hamas, having made its move, appears at pains to signal its willingness to attain a lasting ceasefire with Israel. Focusing on restoring law and order, and social peace internally, it has announced its intention to curb the phenomenon of armed clans taking the law into their own hands, and to combat the criminal networks that have become deeply rooted owing to the chronic economic crisis. It will enhance its public standing if it succeeds in this goal. It has also released all Fatah prisoners captured during its offensive, declared an amnesty for Fatah security officers on its wanted list, and requested that PSF personnel return to their stations and report for duty, albeit under new Hamas commanders. However, Hamas will come under pressure to resume attacks on Israel if the siege of Gaza is tightened and runs a risk of radicalisation within its ranks if it does not respond militarily. New groups adopting the discourse and tactics of al-Qaeda jihadists – such as the Army of Islam, Swords of Right and Brigades of Holy Jihad – have already appeared, signalling the direction of future events.

The international community will have to tread very carefully if a complete breakdown of order in Gaza is to be avoided. A policy limited to supporting the PA's emergency government risks failure: the awkward possibility for Washington and other capitals is that Hamas may prove to be a more dependable interlocutor, capable of maintaining law and order internally, and enforcing a ceasefire with Israel. It may be willing, as Haniyeh reiterated after the fighting ended, to observe the PA's past agreements with Israel, to accept a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders and to conclude a ten-year truce with Israel during which the conflict may be resolved. However, Hamas has so far shown no sign of acceding publicly to the principal demand of the international community, that it recognise Israel's right to exist. Given the low probability that the West Bank can succeed in reasserting itself as the centre of gravity of Palestinian politics, the international community may be faced with a stark choice. On the one hand, it could adjust policy to accommodate a new status quo achieved through violence, accepting Hamas as an unavoidable actor in the Palestinian–Israeli equation. Or it could step up its half-hearted support for Abbas in order to provide a real counterweight to Hamas – thus keeping the small hope of a Palestinian state alive. The danger, however, is that the continued failure of all parties to achieve a resolution will give jihadist militancy room to grow.

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